Architecture of churches in Southern France

To study the features of the ideological and artistic programs of the parish churches of Southern France, in particular the churches of the Languedoc-Roussillon region and part of Provence (i.e. the part of the south that before joining the French Kingdom was called Occitania and included the County of Toulouse, the viscountcy of Raymond-Trenquelles, the Southern French possessions of the Aragonese kings and a number of independent and semi-independent feudal possessions), it is worth (according to the tradition of mature scholasticism) to determine in advance the concept of “parish church” in order to avoid misunderstandings.

The parish was the smallest structural unit of the episcopal diocese, which in turn is part of the metropolis. The parish united a community of believers, usually living on the same street, in the same block or in the same village (small settlement), sometimes members of the same craft or merchant guild. That is why parish churches were initially limited in the realization of their architectural and artistic possibilities by the means that they could collect through donations from parishioners, and because of the prosperity of the parish members, the final result ultimately depended on the construction of the church.

Considering the architecture of the churches of the mendicant orders of Toulouse, we have already noted the fact that it had a significant impact on the religious architecture of parish churches, and above all in the cities where the monks of the mendicant orders tried to establish themselves firmly to fight the “cursed heretics”. We also noted the special proximity of the cities of Occitania and the cities of Lombardy (and partly Tuscany), connected by common mutual trade, religious and cultural interests. “The Languedoc cities imitated the Lombard ones, and the Italian communities directly traced their genealogy from the Roman ancestors of the times of the Republic,” Prof. N.N. Osokin noted in his fundamental classical work “The Albigenses and their Time”.  And further, noting the special proximity of the urban institutions of Languedoc and Lombardy, he writes: “.. we have pointed out a number of special types of urban political institutions, which should actually be called municipalities.

These were the cities of the South, leading traditions from ancient Roman municipalities. They were supported by the proximity of Lombardy, the classical country of ancient communes. It is this communal life that leaves a common imprint on the French South and medieval Italy.”  Having carefully analyzed a large volume of sources concerning the urban life of Languedoc municipalities, Professor N.N. Osokin was the first in Russian medieval studies to make a fundamental, basic conclusion that marked the beginning of a scientific approach to the study of Occitan civilization: “To study the political and social situation of cities in the South of France means to open the key to understanding the main causes of the Albigensian heresy.”  Nowadays, finally, among a number of historians, the idea has prevailed that Italian Gothic cannot be assessed by the degree of its dependence on French Gothic. This, in particular, is written in his work “Gothic architecture in Italy” by Prof. Barbara Borngesser.  Given the close mutual proximity of the urban communes of Languedoc with the urban communes of Lombardy, we assume that the architectural appearance of Toulouse and the cities of Languedoc, as well as the cities of Lombardy and Italy, was determined primarily by the struggle for self-affirmation between different groups of the population.

The dominant element of the cities of Languedoc (as well as the cities of Italy) was the city government building, similar to a tower, whose silhouette, crowned with a battlemented wall, towered over other buildings as a proud symbol of power. It is not surprising that all significant patrician families sought to erect the same towers. A good example of such “castle-tower” architecture is the house of a rich citizen with a tower in Toulouse of the XIV, and possibly the end of the XIII century, miraculously preserved during the fire of 1446.

The clergy competed with the city commune for primacy in the construction of more luxurious and impressive buildings. Apparently, the individuality and originality of the appearance of the buildings under construction were especially highly valued, which was an important factor in the formation of original, non-standard architectural and artistic solutions. Rich merchant guilds, powerful bishops, “mendicant” monastic orders and influential patrician families competed with each other, thereby creating conditions for the emergence and flourishing of a unique type of Gothic architecture in Languedoc (as in Italy).

In addition to the reasons due to the financial well-being of the parish, it is also worth noting the peculiarity of the functioning (annual circle of worship) of parish churches. The fact is that the main task of churches of this type were purely “utilitarian” everyday, religious needs of the community: baptism and confirmation, wedding, funeral, communion, unction (“last communion” for Catholics), memorial services and prayer services, as well as, of course, the administration of festive services and all this for a fairly narrow circle of believers. That is why there was no need for the construction of spacious buildings (two or three-day), during the construction of parish churches. Due to the above reasons, the architecture of parish churches developed, adapting to the number of parishioners, and to the modest means at its disposal.

Most parish churches, both in cities and in rural areas, were, as a rule, a single-nave basilica without transepts, and sometimes even without a semicircular apse (for example, the church of Saint-Pierre, XI-XIII centuries., in the town of Montferrand, canton of Castelnaudary). In almost all types of religious buildings of this type, a single nave is divided into sections following the enfilade one after the other, thus creating a rhythmic organization of space along the longitudinal axis “west-east” (as for example, in the church of Notre-Dame la Dalbad, Notre-Dame du Tarn, the church of Saint-Nicolas in Toulouse, or the churches of Midi Toulousain). At the same time, the section is, as it were, the main element and it can be mentally distinguished from the entire ensemble, Auguste Choisy was one of the first to draw attention to this feature in his “History of Architecture”. Often the semicircular or pentagonal (octagonal less often) form of the choir was completed with an apse, small in size, which was added later, as funds were accumulated necessary to continue construction work (as in the church of Saint-Pierre, XIII century, in the town of Tuten, canton of Karaman). Sometimes, in order to save money, it was necessary to block the space of churches with simple wooden structures with open rafters (as, for example, in the church of Saint-Pierre of the XIV century, in the town of Aureville, canton of Castaine-Toulouse).

Sometimes the interior space was overlapped with a wooden, flat cassette ceiling with painted ceiling lights, as for example, in the church of Saint-Germier of the XIII century, the town of Fruzhine (canton of Mure), we can also find a similar solution in the church of Santa Croce in Florence (1294-1295). In order to avoid the need to transfer the strife with the help of expensive arcbutanes, the choir, as a rule, was left without circumvention, and the chapels (dedicated to some local saints) were often erected much later than the main building and could generally have features of a different, later style (for example, in the church of Sainte-Appolonie, XIV-XV, XVII century., in the town of Furin, canton de Lant). Although there are churches striking with their amazing clarity of the lines of the Gothic style, almost like in the “classical” cathedrals of Ile-de-France (for example, the church of Saint-Saturnin, XIII-XVI centuries., in the town of Villenovelle, canton of Villefranche de Languedoc). The architecture of parish churches is of particular interest to the researcher, since the methods of erecting such structures are simple and clear, and at the same time they are not at all just a blind repetition (copying) of Gothic cathedrals in miniature.

The tasks of solving the problem of direct lighting of interiors, at minimal cost, set by the Gothic to the architects of Languedoc, found their brilliant solution in terms of a parish church with a single nave, with buttresses directly leaning against the wall, and with rows of rather large windows on each facade. Today it is known that a similar scheme for solving this problem was known in the south of France as early as the XII century, for example in Languedoc and Provence (Saint-Gabriel Church, XII century). In addition to this region, it was used in Lombardy and Perigord, in the extreme south-west of France, where the rich Byzantine heritage that came to Aquitaine through the mediation of Venice was used.

It was in Perigord that the schemes of single-nave churches covered with several domes were distributed. Such, for example, is the church without a transept of the beginning of the XII century in Cahors.  Later, from there, this scheme was apparently borrowed by the Angevin Architectural School. At least, it was already used during the construction of the Gothic cathedral in Angers in 1145 (i.e. only five years after the completion of the church of Saint-Denis). With such a scheme, rather thick walls resist the spacer of the rib arches, and powerful vertical buttresses (placed outside), and having a stepped structure with indents, support the corners of the sections. True, in the Angers Cathedral, the buttresses do not have stepped ledges, but the rib vaults have a shape approaching a spherical square (in Languedoc, for example, the vaults of the church in Aurina have the same shape).

Since the lands of Occitania, unlike Ile-de-France, had a rich Romanesque tradition, and the transition to Gothic took place here at the end of the XIII century, the architecture of parish churches (as well as monastic ones) does not use the six-part vaults that dominated the architecture of the royal domain in the second half of the XII century. A consequence of the rich Romanesque tradition can also be considered the fact that during the construction of the first Gothic churches in small towns and small towns, in the vaults with diagonal pointed arches, there is still a “dome shape”, or the form of “skufya”, widely used in the Romanesque era in Aquitaine, in the area of Perigord (when they sought to distribute the action of the rasp).   An example of such a symbiosis is the church of Saint-Appolonie of the XII-XV centuries, the town of Aurin of the canton de Lanta. By the way, the interior of this church is not only a surprisingly harmonious combination of sections of all three types: semi-circular Romanesque, Gothic domed and simply Gothic, but also differs in rich and bright, polychrome interior paintings, characteristic rather of the buildings of Italy or Byzantium.

Another interesting design feature of the Languedoc Gothic churches (which was also used in the construction of the Toulouse monastic, “preaching” churches) was the almost universal use of the space between the buttresses, in order to create a number of chapel boxes (placed between the buttresses) repeating the main direction of movement of the nave, from the western portal to the apse. The use of such solutions can be associated with the presence of a rich ancient tradition in the south of France, since it was the ancient and Byzantine architects who placed the supporting elements inside the building, always used the space between them. Nevertheless, a number of researchers continue to consider the Gothic of monastic mendicant orders as “simplified” and equally “opposed” to the former “luxury” of the monastic style of Cluny and the architecture of city cathedrals.

In the Gothic architecture of Ile-de-France (where the supports are taken out), such a technique was first used only around 1240, during the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris (where the architects guessed to move the outer walls to the extreme line of buttresses projections), and this “innovation” in the north remained for almost half a century an isolated phenomenon. It seems strange to Auguste Choisy that such a simple idea is assimilated by Northern French architects with such a delay, since, for example, in the cathedrals of Amiens, Tours and a number of others, such chapels between buttresses appear only after the XIII century, and only as a result of individual reconstruction works. It seems all the more surprising that in Languedoc Gothic such a constructive solution is used immediately and almost everywhere, both in the construction of early Gothic buildings (parish and monastery churches) and in the construction of later Gothic cathedrals (in particular, Saint-Etienne Cathedral in Toulouse).

Concluding the general overview, it is worth saying that a characteristic feature of the churches of Languedoc can also be considered the almost ubiquitous use of pilasters instead of wall columns and the direct covering of the roof arches. Thus, the arches in Languedoc, as well as in Auvergne and Provence, resemble the ancient arches with their massiveness, which, according to O. Choisy, they were inspired by.  Let’s take a closer look at a number of parish churches, the iconography of which, it seems to us, was influenced by the solutions found during the construction of churches of “mendicant orders”.

Architecture of churches in Southern France
Architecture of churches in Southern France